We just had a fantastic day! What made it so great? I got to meet some elephants.
For my 45th birthday, Heidi and the kids decided to do something pretty unique. It checks all the boxes for coolness, awe, and fun. We went to the Elephant Nature Park, part of Save Elephant Foundation.
Flashback to 2014:
Elephants are big business in Thailand. In every city we’ve been in, so far, we’ve seen “elephant ride” this, and “elephant trek” that. So when Heidi told me we were going to the Elephant Nature Park, that’s naturally what I thought we’d be doing.
During the 45 minute ride to the park, we were talking with some of the staff, fellow travelers, and the kids and I were laughing a lot in the back van. As we were approaching the park, we saw a bunch of elephant trekkers…carrying people. Once in the park, it was unlike anything I had seen before. It’s a huge preserve that has rescued over 400 dogs, 300 cats, water buffalo, and of course, elephants. We weren’t going for a ride, we were going to hang out with elephants that were just roaming free!
Our guide, Petch, introduced herself to our small group of 11 and had a couple of tables reserved for us. It was a convenient and dry place to store our belongings. Petch gave us a run-down of the facilities (bathrooms, store, and food), our general schedule for the day. It wasn’t long, and it was time to feed some elephants. Already? Wow, that was fast!
On the perimeter of the building, there’s a fence and markers on the ground. For safety concerns, we’re told to stand behind the red line while feeding the elephants. Several workers bring out big laundry baskets filled with watermelon, bananas, shucked corn, and pumpkins. Petch showed us the proper way to feed the elephants, and then gave us the go ahead.
We had watched the elephants walk up to the fence, and they are big! I’ve seen elephants before, but up close like this, they were huge. Feeding the elephants was pretty awesome, I have to admit. Holding out a piece of watermelon, they just wrap their trunk around the food, and put it in their mouths.
Their trunks are incredible. You get a real sense of the power of their trunks as you feed them. I would hate to be on the receiving end of a whack from a trunk. As strong as the trunk is, it’s amazing how dextrous it is. The elephants showed great control when manipulating the food.
For the pumpkins (they’re about the size of a large cantaloupe), the feeding technique is a bit different. Instead of just “handing” it to the elephant, you sandwich the trunk and pumpkin between your two hands. This gives the elephant a solid grasp on the pumpkin. It felt weird holding the trunk, but it was COOL!
I thought feeding the elephants from the fence was cool, but then Petch led us down to ground level, and we were able to feed another group of elephants. No fence. The elephants are right next to us! Awesome!
The elephants are so incredible. They are very calm, and they’re just happy to eat while we’re feeding them and trying to take pictures at the same time. Up close, we got to see features of the elephant that are not normally visible on the television, or at a zoo. The hairs all over their body and on top of their head are very coarse. The skin is really “dense” as it can be an inch thick. They have eyelashes that women would love to have.
Throughout the main lodge area, there are many scratching posts, and the elephants love to come and get a good scratch. It’s pretty funny to watch a group of elephants rubbing their behinds against the posts. Heidi even watched one elephant break a small branch from the tree, pick it up and scratch her belly (the elephant’s not Heidi’s).
Petch told us we were going to move to another location near the river to feed another group of elephants. The handlers do an amazing job of herding (get it?) the elephants around to the various areas. There is no hitting. Most of the elephants respond to voice commands, and there was no “elephant drama”. Their philosophy is to treat the elephants with love and expect that in return.
There were some big elephants in this next group. Both tall AND wide, it really hits home how puny we are standing next to them. If they wanted to do some damage, there’s nothing we could do to stop them. Luckily they’re very placid.
I was surprised at how each elephant has its own personality. While we were feeding Mae Keow, she would just drop the pumpkins. Our son asked why she was doing that, and Petch explained that she likes to eat the pumpkins last. She also likes to be fed corn two cobs at a time. I handed one to her, and she kept her trunk out like she was saying, “Keep it coming, Human.”. Once I gave her another corn cob, she would start eating again.
I don’t know how Petch managed to keep everything going so smoothly. She not only kept our group together, but answered all of our questions, and even managed to take pictures for everyone. Whew!
After all the feeding of elephants, it was time to tend to the feeding of the humans. Hooray! The staff at Elephant Nature Park put together an excellent buffet of food. There were a few different types of rice, tons of noodle dishes, and plenty of veggie offerings as well. They even had french fries (they were excellent)! Not only that, but plenty of fruit like pineapple and papaya.
Once fed, it was time for a nap. Just kidding…I stuffed myself. Now that we were all fed, it was time to see a mini-documentary on elephants and the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation (of which the Elephant Nature Park is a part). Sangduen Chailert, or “Lek” as she is known has been instrumental in helping rescue sick or injured elephants. She’s an amazing advocate for the rights and welfare of elephants. If there is ever a case of a single individual being able to affect change on a national and international level, Lek is a prime example.
Here’s the sad part of the day. After being around elephants, and seeing how social they are, it’s a shame that humans have done so much to damage the ecology and habitat of the elephant. In addition, the vast majority of elephants that are utilized by humans are domesticated in a very brutal fashion.
It was tough to see that part of the movie, but it’s also important to show the kids the reality of how elephants are treated. Throughout our day, we had been around elephants who had been blinded by their handlers before being rescued. Some of the elephants who had been involved in the logging industry had stepped on land mines and were missing parts of their feet. Another rescued elephant had been hit by a car, and had a really bad limp. It’s that kind of treatment that has led to the endangerment of the Asian Elephant.
After the movie, we’re feeling a bit somber, and Petch told us it was time to bathe the elephants, and that raised our spirits considerably. We grabbed some buckets and made our way down to the river. The handlers had led the elephants into the water. It was funny, but once they got into the water, the elephants decided it was time to go to the bathroom and let me tell you that elephant poop makes a big plop!
Once they were done (it’s rude to interrupt an elephant while they’re making their “business”), it was bathing time! The elephants really liked getting the water thrown on them. Petch was right there telling us, “They like it on the top!”. We all were able to give our elephant a good bath, and then the elephants crossed the river, and started dusting themselves with “fresh” dirt.
The next part of our adventure was to go up onto the sky deck and watch a larger group of elephants come over to get fed. This group was special because it had a baby! You can always tell a rambunctious kid, no matter what the species, and this group’s kid, Dok Mai, was a rascal.
One of the rules was not to touch the baby. Not so much because that we would hurt it, but the mother, Dok Ngern, was still a worried mother. We made our way back down to ground level, and we’re surrounded by these amazing elephants. And the baby was very cute. As we’ve been standing amongst these gentle creatures, it’s apparent we’ve become a bit complacent.
One of the guides tells one of the members of our group to look out. One of the elephants either saw or smelled food, and went to investigate. One of our group members had his back turned, and was in between the elephant and the food. You would think as large as they are, that elephants would make a lot of noise when they walk, but they are very quiet. Almost ninja-like. So it was a good reminder to keep our wits about us. Some of the elephants are blind, or nearly so, and they don’t mean to be scary.
We took a lot more pictures with the elephants and Diana (fellow travel blogger and ENP Volunteer) was able to help me do my ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Refreshing! Up until now, we’d been very close to the main lodge, but Petch gathered us up and told us we were going to walk through some more of the habitat. As we did, we saw many of the groups that we had been feeding all day. We watched as the juvenile elephants played with each other, some of the handlers, and even a few of the dogs.
We were shown the clinic area where the elephants get treated, and were able to wave to the Vet.
There was only one “Oh crap!” moment. We were making our way back to the lodge, and we hear one of the elephants blast their horn. It was loud, and the elephant sounded pissed off. Heidi, the kids and I were bringing up the rear getting into the lodge, and Petch was doing her best to hurry us up. It turns out the upset elephant was a baby wanting MORE food from mamma, and letting everyone know about the situation.
Once in the lodge, we fed some more elephants, and were able to have some tea, rice cakes, and biscuits ourselves. With that, Petch told us it was time to gather our belongings and head back into Chiang Mai. Awwwww!
If I’ve overused the words “awesome”, “cool”, or “amazing”, I apologize. This day was filled with awesome, and I don’t have my thesaurus handy.
I would like to point out some of the Key Players for today’s trip. First off, I’ve got to give a big thumbs up to the elephants themselves. They were breathtaking.
I would also like to give a shout out to Diana for arranging our stupendous day. She was also helpful in helping me fulfill my ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and provided us with some great info about local restaurants in our area of Chiang Mai.
Next up is Petch. She was an amazing guide who was able to keep our entire group together, give us lots of information on the elephants, and provide us with an excellent experience.
Lastly, a major thank you goes to Lek for her desire of protecting elephants, and establishment of the Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation. We were fortunate enough to meet her in person, and it’s amazing how one person’s vision can be made into a reality. Lek is from the hills of Northern Thailand and her grandfather was the tribe shaman. He was once paid for his healing, with an Elephant. Because of this, from the age of 5 years old, she began working with and loving elephants.
One final note. If you come to Thailand, you’re probably thinking of riding an elephant or doing an elephant trek. My advice to you is not to do it. Lek has provided a great environment for people to enjoy elephants in a way that does not harm the elephants, nor further endanger them. What better than to spend the entire day feeding, bathing and walking right with the elephants. If you do choose to ride them, please check out the establishment and see how they treat the elephants. As a consumer, I urge you to vote with your wallet.
There are many ways you can donate money or volunteer your time. These donations will help continue the great work that the Save Elephant Foundation is doing. You can spend your time living with the elephants and volunteer for 1 week or longer.
There are several Options for Visits, we selected the single day option.
A single day visit (feeding and bathing)Start: 08:00 / 08:30 am. Pick up from your city hotel / accommodation. Return: Approximately 17:00 / 30 to Chiang Mai city. Bring: Hat, Sunscreen, Sandals/Flip Flops, Change of clothing for river bathing, towel, Shoes for walking, Camera, Bug Repellent. Open: All Year Round. Age: Appropriate for all ages from infants to retirees.
A full day visit is approximately (walking the elephants in the mountains)
Overnight visit – two days one night
Weekly and more
Donations – We donated!
If you decide to donate, please let us know in the comments below or in an email. We would want to thank you personally.
Donate for Elephant Care – Providing the elephants a healthy diet and veterinary care, goes a long way in keeping the elephants happy.
Donate for Land Purchase – Your donations can go towards Land Purchase to help protect the land from future development. They are now at maximum capacity for 200 acres with 39 rescued elephants.
Donate your time by Volunteering – You can give your time, and help with all of the duties that goes into running the park:
When you are in the Chiang Mai area, this really is one of the “must do” experiences.
We have several videos we will be sharing with you as well as our homeschool activities with the kids, so be on the lookout!
We also have a very all inclusive list of Things to do in Chiang Mai with kids or without. This also includes our expenses living in Chiang Mai, where to eat and places to stay in Chiang Mai.
Disclosure: ENP was kind enough to sponsor our visit. All opinions are our own. We were so pleased with the experience and completely support the Save Elephant Foundation, we have even donated to the cause.